29 August 2016

The End of the World

Britain ends somewhere in the Scottish highlands, not far from the cottage in Kinlochbervie where we spent the week. The end of the island on northwest side is Cape Wrath, which is the real end, and we waited to take a ferry there on Tuesday until I realised that we needed to take a bus on the other side and it would cost more than I thought, something like sixty pounds altogether. So we instead went back to the beach in Durness, the rain just starting to fall again.

If you know anything about the Scottish Highlands, you know it is famous for small biting insects called midges and for the rain. Both of these things can be particularly bad in August, but in May, when I made the plans for the trip and booked the cottage, I didn't think about that. Instead it was a kind of attempt to recapture my own childhood, taking the car north to Ely, Minnesota, to Wolf Lake where my grandmother had a cabin, or rather a mobile home parked on a berm looking out at the water. I wrote and wrote and wrote about memories of Wolf Lake and Ely when I was in college, about ghosts of dead relatives and the people that disappeared in the woods. 

When I wrote in college, I didn't think much of my parents,  but they are there in the writing as I look back at it now. I wrote:
The house my mother grew up in has been painted. A deck has been added to the front stoop, the sidewalk where my uncles pressed handprints, torn out. Now, as I stand in the snow ten years after I was last inside of the house, I need to look away to remember everything. I look away to remember how the cement stoop, painted red, peeled in July heat or how, when I was six, I woke up from a nap one afternoon to hear my brother and father coming back from fishing. The things that make up memory, like this place (the cabin my grandmother had at Wolf Lake, the paddle-boat, the dock), decayed, fell over, turned upside down, were left behind in the snow. The space between them is closer now and I talk outloud about how they used to be as though, if I stop talking, I will forget.
Kinlochbervie may be in the north, but it has little in common with Ely — there are only four hundred people in Kinlochbervie and a Spar and petrol pump attached to a Post Office. It is quiet in a way that there is rarely ever in the south. You stand and you can hear nothing manufactured, no planes or cars or hums of machinery. On the first day, we trudged an hour and half through the heather and rocks to Sandwood Bay which you can't reach by car. The girls and Yoko pressed on while I worried the whole way about one of them collapsing and being caught out in the middle of nowhere with nothing. I was worrying too much, wasn't I. We crested the hill and there it was, a mile of pristine beach and only the people who had persevered through the heat to see it. The girls ran the last half mile, pulling clothes off before they finally fell into the water.

My parents are minor players in my childhood memories of the lake — this makes sense now as I watched the girls run in and out of the water and on the sand. Where is dad anyway, where has he wandered off to — it's a thought that sits just beyond consciousness. He's hiding maybe.

The midges came out like a cloud when we left Sandwood Bay at five. The girls pressed on, Naomi especially, and I thought about my worrying on the way out: here, this is what I was worried about. I pulled a blanket over my head and we all kept going until Mia was sobbing, a mile away from the car. I put her on my back, underneath the blanket and she went limp like she had passed out. I carried her a while and then had her walk 100 steps while I rested. Up and down, up and down, until we were back to the car and laughing and joking about it all. What was there to worry about.

We used to fish in Minnesota, and we would sit out in the paddle boat on the water, casting again and again. I don't remember catching fish. I remember there was a suana that we would sit in naked. I remember that when I was 14, one summer my sister and I went to see Grandma alone and she let me drive the minivan up and down the access road to the cabin. I was growing and filled with an awkward kinetic energy, but that is all I remember, just the energy.

On the ride home in the car, the girls fell asleep at different times: we drove back in silence, out of the south of Scotland and towards Carlisle. Why isn't there ever anything to say. I thought and I thought, remembering some trace of my father, but then not sure if I had the memory or was projecting him into a place I knew he would have been. There, a fleeting thought of us, eating lunch on the rocks, as we took canoes into the Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Canada. There he is, sitting and smiling. I'm sure I can remember it.

01 August 2016

What to expect when you're expecting

Whenever I travel, I save my train tickets in a rubber band like baseball cards. This year, I've been back and forth to London every month, to Euston and then parking myself in Senate House or Starbucks or some other place as I wait for some meeting I've booked. Sometimes I've taken the 4AM Megabus to save money, to squeeze all that I can out of the £300 I asked for at the beginning of the year. All these trips haven't amounted to much yet, even though last week or the week before, I thought that they might. I had one last trip this school year, for an interview that went well. I rode the train home that night not sure of what narrative I needed to tell myself. There are so many different narratives you can tell.

The narrative, it turns out, is the same one I've been telling myself for the last two and a half years, of working at a small university and affecting change in a meaningful way, one that I've gotten very used to saying as I hand out the teardrop shaped business cards I've been given. When I drove Mei up to Newman last Wednesday, to print a picture for her friend that was going away, we stopped at the statute of the university's namesake John Henry Newman in the centre of the quad and I brushed off some cobwebs from the back. I thought of Newman the man, who only wanted to radiate Christ's light to the world, and felt guilty about my own lack of interest in serving others, before taking Mei's hand again and heading back to the car.

Instead of a new narrative, I replayed an old one, coming back to Cagliari, in Sardinia, for an academic conference on authenticity and style. I had been here in 2014 at the beginning of my time at Newman, for a conference on metaphor and I remembered, the way that you remember by being somewhere a second time, a night I had met two beautiful German PhD students who knew my work and were perched on the steps of Chiesa San Michele smoking cigarettes and drinking. I got a beer at a shop that had beads hanging in the door frame — everything was golden and faded, and we sat there looking out over it.

This time, I've felt older — sweaty and fat trudging up and down the hills, thinking about my failure again to secure a better job and all the questions I should have answered in the interview with more focus on teaching English rather than all these other things I've been writing about. And how does sexuality fit into your work on religion? The truth is I'm not sure that it does — I just assume that in twenty years I'll look back on my life and it will make sense. It's all narrative, isn't it? The panel looks at you, but no one writes anything down: this is a sign that you haven't said the right thing.

I told someone about the interview and they said, I'm sure you did wonderfully, but I immediately thought, how would you know though. What if I didn't. 

My book was on sale at the conference for twenty euros, but no one was buying it, and in the end I asked the publisher to let me have it to give to one of the plenary speakers, someone whom I had wanted to give it to for a while. I got the book and as I sat in a session and thumbed through it, I worried that she had left the conference already. This is okay, I thought, not that bad, before finding a spelling error and a poorly written sentence and stuffing it in my bag. When the session ended, I went in search of Elena, the speaker, and had a sense that she would be sitting outside, under a tree in the shade, which she was. I went down with it and gave it to her, You might find this useful, I said, and went back to another session. 

I went running on Saturday morning with a Japanese colleague, although we didn't speak any Japanese and he was a much faster runner than me. I felt like an ox next to him, and said at one point, you should set the pace, it's been too long since I've run. It was early and the Sardinian baby boomers, the ones you can imagine have been told then need to take tablets and get some exercise, were out jogging and walking on the sea front. We took a narrow path on the road, towards the river and the centre of the island. Suddenly, and without warning, I tripped and fell on my hands and knees, immediately shocked and embarrassed. I fell down, I said, and got up wanting to keep running, to pretend it didn't happen, but we walked a short way. I was fine — an ox is resilient, but I felt like a child the way you do when you fall. I scrapped my knees; I'm okay.

It's August first now, and my flight back leaves in three hours. I have to put on my warmer clothes, and get ready for another year of the train and Megabus. The girls are waiting for me: the girls who forgive me and find meaning without need of a narrative yet. I will shut and lock the door while Yoko reads them a Japanese storybook and they all fall asleep, their father lingering and hunched over his laptop in the living room trying to fix another sentence before giving up and falling asleep too. Let the imagination take over the narrative for a bit, let it dream in the cool Birmingham night, the sun just below the horizon and coming again before you know it.